1) Like Illinois, Minnesota has dealt with a lot of adversity this season due to Jerry Kill's resignation. His long-time defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys received a three-year contract from interim athletic director Beth Goetz to keep that staff together. What are the perceived pros and cons of that move in Minnesota?
Burns: The pros are that Minnesota is able to keep the longest tenured staff in America together and keep building on the solid foundation that Jerry Kill built while in his four and a half years at Minnesota. Most Gopher fans know that building a program takes time, especially after Tim Brewster left the Minnesota program in a dumpster fire before heading to Florida State. The Gophers now in 2015 are much more competitive and have just seen a lot of injuries happen and it hasn't help that they've had the second toughest schedule in America according to Football Outsiders. They've got their top recruiting class committed in the five years they've been here (40th in the team rankings), so things are on a positive trend for Minnesota. I also don't believe that the Gophers could have paid their top candidates enough money considering the amount of P5 openings there will be this off-season.
I honestly don't see too many cons with this move as with the three-year contract extension, there's a low buyout and so if Minnesota's new athletic director decides he/she wants to go a different direction, it won't be at the significant cost of the University. It also gives the current coaching staff a chance to prove themselves next year with a much easier schedule on the docket for 2016.
2) The crossover schedule did Minnesota no favors this season as it had to play No. 15 Michigan and No. 3 Ohio State in back-to-back weeks, followed by a game against No. 5 Iowa. But the Gophers lost those three games by a combined 21 points. What has kept Minnesota so competitive against great opponents?
It's crazy for me to say that, but the truth is it's been the Gopher offense. This same Minnesota offense that had significant struggles early in the year was able to hang 26 on Michigan and 35 on Iowa, but it's been on the backs of more consistent play of quarterback Mitch Leidner and more creative play-calling from offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Leidner over his last three games has a 59% completion percentage, 847 passing yards with a touchdown to interception ratio of 4:1. He hasn't been turning the ball over and it's given Minnesota a lot more confidence. He's stepping into more throws and the coaching staff is putting out a game-plan that suits his strengths. There's also been a lot of speculation that the reason behind the creativity from the offensive coaches of late is because Jerry Kill is gone and now they can deviate from the risk averse game-plan.
The defense has had their moments in the last few games, but they've just been devastated by injuries. Minnesota was without both starting defensive tackles last week and they'll be without four of their top seven defensive backs for the rest of the season.
3) The Gophers struggled to score during nonconference play but is putting up decent points recently. Kill's Minnesota teams hae been run-first and physical, but it seems like the Gophers putting more on quarterback Mitch Leidner recently. What has changed offensively and who are the key playmakers for the Gophers?
As I said earlier, what's changed is quarterback Mitch Leidner is playing with a lot of confidence right now and Matt Limegrover is opening up the playbook more and more. Leidner's completing some early short passes to start games and is able to get in a rhythm, which is really helping this Minnesota offense move the ball. True freshman Shannon Brooks and redshirt freshman are the two bell-cow backs for this Gopher offense and Brooks is the Thunder to Smith's Lightning. Brooks wants to find contact and run through you, not around you. Smith wants to beat you with his speed and agility, so both will be keyon Saturday. Minnesota's OC Limegrover has called a lot more trick plays in three games then we've seen in years under Kill. Some of it I'm sure is the fact that Minnesota has to use some trick plays when they try to beat teams like Ohio State and Michigan, but it's been a refreshing thing to see.
A couple of other playmakers to keep an eye on for Saturday are wide receiver K.J. Maye and tight end Brandon Lingen. Both are coming off 100-yard receiving games vs. Iowa, and for the Gophers to have two 100-yard receivers in a game is truly unheard of in this offense. Maye is the Gophers leading receiver and you'll see Minnesota move him all over the field as he'll play both the X and Z position, plus some in the slot. Lingen has been a security blanket for Leinder in recent weeks and the Gophers have had a lot of success with Lingen in the flats and up the seam. Both will have to continue off last week's success if the Gophers are to pull out a win at home Saturday.
4) Minnesota has had a solid to good defense under Claeys. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this year's group?
The strengths have been the linebacking corps and the corners, which are the two positions that have stayed the healthiest this season. Minnesota boasts three very solid linebackers in De'Vondre Campbell, Cody Poock and Jack Lynn (Illinois native) and each are in the Gophers top-four tackle totals for far this season. Campbell will be on an NFL roster somewhere next season as he's an athletic freak that has figured out more and more of the mental game on LB coach Mike Sherels. Poock has dealt with some injuries this season, but he's been the tough nosed MLB you'd expect in the Big Ten. Lynn leads in the team in TFL's and has taken a nice step forward from his sophomore to junior season. Corners Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are also coming off All-B1G seasons as juniors. Both haven't disappointed as seniors. Murray has 13 passes defended and three forced fumbles while routinely shutting down his side of the field. Boddy-Calhoun has been dealing with a knee injury for most of the season, but both guys have been key in a banged up secondary.
The weaknesses come from the lack of pass rush from the defensive line and at the safety position. Minnesota has only 18 sacks through 10 games and opposing quarterbacks have had way too much time to sit in the pocket this season. Minnesota has dealt with some injuries at the position, but they just haven't been able to find a pass rush this season. The Gophers lost starting safety Damarius Travis to a hamstring injury after the first game and their back-up Ace Rogers tore his ACL, so Minnesota's had walk-on Kunle Ayinde starting along side Antonio Johnson for most the season. Johnson has been good, but Ayinde is starting to wear down in recent weeks and he had an especially tough week against the Hawkeyes last weekend.
5) What are the keys to a Minnesota win and what is your prediction (with a score) for this game?
The two keys that have to happen if the Gophers are going to get a home win on Saturday are they're going to have keep things close in the first quarter and establish some kind of running game. Minnesota is being out-scored in the first quarter this season 61-20 and they can't get off to another slow start at home this weekend and force Leidner to throw to get them back in the game. Minnesota also has struggled to run the ball in recent weeks averaging just over 100 yards a game, which is subpar to Minnesota's standards. The offensive line has to establish themselves early and get the running game back on track behind Brooks and Smith.
Minnesota has been playing pretty well of late, but they just haven't been able to connect on all three facets of the game (offense, defense and special teams). I think they get very close to doing that at home against Illinois and pull out a close victory.
Minnesota 24, Illinois 20